In 1819, American settlers in Missouri, a region carved from the Louisiana Purchase, submitted a request to Congress for admission into the Union.
NBD, right? Plenty of states had been joining the Union with not too much of a fuss.
Well, no. Nineteenth-century America was all fuss.
Many of those who had moved to the territory had migrated from the slaveholding South, of course bringing their human property with them. By this year, the region's slave population topped 10,000. It appeared certain that the territory would seek to protect slavery in its constitution, establishing Missouri as a slave state.
The problem was, there had been a sort of equilibrium that had formed between northern free states and southern slavery states. Alabama had just been allowed to enter the Union. If Missouri wanted to be a slave state, they'd be tipping the balance toward proslavery government.
New York Congressman James Tallmadge and many Northern reps wished to prevent the spread of slavery into the West. They proposed that statehood be granted under the condition that the institution would be gradually abolished within Missouri's borders. No new slaves would be allowed to enter, and the children of all those already in Missouri would be freed at the age of 25. After all, this type of "gradual emancipation" policy had been successfully instituted since the end of the Revolution in several northern states, including Connecticut, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey.
But southern representatives, who understood that more slave states meant more southern congressmen, and therefore more federal power, defeated the proposal, leaving the conditions for Missouri's statehood unresolved.
One year later, Illinois Senator Jesse Thomas designed a compromise that, he hoped, would satisfy both factions.
Missouri would be allowed to draft the constitution it so desired without any restrictions, and to offset the addition of a new slave state, Maine would be admitted into the Union as a free state. Plus, slavery would be prohibited in all remaining territory north of 36º30', the southern border of Missouri.
Except, of course, within Missouri itself.
Speaker of the House Henry Clay, "The Great Compromiser," led the charge in getting the separate measures voted upon. He was actually a proponent earlier on for gradual emancipation, but as we like to call him, "The Great Flip-Flop," he was one of the OG politicians who sold out for the sake of money.
Well, Congress voted to adopt Thomas' resolution as the Missouri Compromise.
"This momentous question," Thomas Jefferson remarked about the debate over westward expansion of slavery, "like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the union."blank">election of Abraham Lincoln as president of the United States.
The American Civil War could have broken out as early as 1787.
Yep, just 10 or so years in. The country was already bickering like an old married couple when drafting the Constitution.
It's tough to believe that a war was sparked by the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, a tall, handsome guy who was well-liked enough to earn a distinguished nickname like Honest Abe.
But Southerners believed the Republican president posed a threat to slavery a.k.a. their livelihood. By the resulting secession of the South (seven states, to be exact), the new Confederate States of America were putting out a loud and clear message that they could care less about this honest, tall drink of water.
Lincoln's Republican Party didn't even exist until 1854, and no state had ever seceded from the Union before South Carolina voted in December of 1860 to do just that. In fact, no major political party objected to the existence of slavery in the United States prior to the creation of the abolitionist Liberty Party in the 1830s.
Still, it was during the Revolutionary era that slavery in America first became a topic of public debate, and when the issue first threatened to tear the burgeoning nation apart. No surprise here. Many of history's greatest revolutions—the French Revolution, the October Revolution in Russia, and major uprisings in Germany, India, Spain, Portugal, and Cuba, to name a few—were followed by fierce and often bloody counterrevolutions spurred by extreme dissatisfaction with new reigning leaders and their policies.
In 1787, the newly formed national government of the U.S. managed to escape such a fate, but only narrowly. And only for several decades.
Upon defeating Britain in the American Revolution, the United States became the first independent nation in the Western Hemisphere—a monumental triumph.
But success in the war also resulted in a number of critical—and potentially dangerous—transformations in the republic's physical, ideological, and political landscape.
Victory triggered a widespread migration of colonists from the eastern and southern coasts to frontier regions in the West. The British Crown, in order to stabilize trade relations with Native Americans, had prevented American colonists from venturing west of the Appalachian Mountains up until the 1783 Treaty of Paris. But with peace, the new republic claimed the territory and opened it to new settlement. Americans flocked to the western lands, often bringing slaves with them, and took possession of available acreage. Government officials sought to regulate the migration of, as Benjamin Franklin called them, "debtors, loose English people, our German servants, and slaves," by establishing rules for occupation of the land north of the Ohio River.blank">Constitution. This deal would haunt the country throughout the next 70 years, inciting bitter political conflict over what was increasingly becoming an institution "peculiar" to the South and fostering both dependence upon and hostility for the power that slavery engendered.
Despite slaveowners' incredible paranoia of slave rebellions, Nat Turner's was one of the few rebellions that was actually carried out. And it went out with a bang.
Nat Turner believed that God had chosen him, a Virginia slave preacher, to lead a Black rebellion through the plantation South. On August 22nd, 1831, he and dozens of slaves stormed a string of farms, attacking the whites who lived there.
The state's militia eventually captured Turner and his followers, but not before the rebels had killed over 50 people, mainly women and children, since most adult men had been attending an out-of-town religious revival. The trials that followed the uprising led to dozens of deportations and executions, including the hanging of Turner, who displayed no remorse for his actions.
Turner's slave rebellion and his death aroused antislavery radicals in the North to take action to emancipate slaves and to aid and protect the nation's free Black population. In 1832, William Lloyd Garrison organized the New England Antislavery Society in order to channel the efforts of Northern abolitionists—Black and white—into an effective and unified voice. In the following year, inspired by the decision of the British Parliament to outlaw slavery throughout the British Empire, Garrison and a number of abolitionist leaders in the United States formed a nationwide organization to eliminate slavery: the American Antislavery Society.
Abolitionists remained a minority, even within the northern population, but through the publication of hundreds of thousands of incendiary—and illustrated—pamphlets and the submission of copious antislavery petitions to leaders in Washington, they managed to poke the fire of the slavery question and inflame sectional tensions surrounding the issue.
Spoiler alert: Nat Turner's large-scale slave revolt—carried out in the very heart of the plantation South—and the abolitionist movement it helped inspire, didn't lead to a change of heart in the South.
Instead, it spurred Southern leaders to pursue new, merciless policies toward slave insurrection. They strengthened state militias, promoted the organization of aggressive local patrols, and passed laws prohibiting Blacks from acting as preachers.
Southern statesmen also agreed that bipartisan federal support for these efforts would be imperative for the protection of the agricultural South and, ultimately, the national economy, which depended upon the production of raw products that thrived in the South, such as cotton, tobacco, and hemp. As a result, the tone of government debates over slavery and the rising abolitionist movement assumed a new urgency in the 1830s.
On February 6th, 1837, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina stood before the United States Senate and read aloud two antislavery petitions sent to Congress by abolitionist groups. He then proceeded to deliver a warning. "As widely as this incendiary spirit has spread," he said of the abolitionist crusade, "it has not yet infected this [federal government]...but unless it be speedily stopped, it will spread and work upwards till it brings the two great sections of the Union into deadly conflict." He implored the free states to lay aside their political disputes with the South. If they agreed to do so, the senator promised, disunion could be avoided. In essence, South Carolina's senator threatened secession—a prophetic hint of events to come.
In 1793, Northerner Eli Whitney, a recent Yale grad, headed south for work in the big bad real world.
He had already nabbed a potentially lucrative position private tutoring in South Carolina, but when he got there, his promised salary was cut in half. Disappointed, Whitney ditched the job, but quickly discovered a new opportunity—one quite unrelated to the teaching profession that he had first pursued.
And it made the big bad South bigger. And arguably badder.
During his journey to the South, Whitney met a woman who presented him with an offer to return with her to Savannah, Georgia to assist her fiancé in the management of her plantation. Whitney had worked as a blacksmith and farmer in his younger days, so he accepted the offer.
But shortly after arriving, he found that planters throughout the South—including his new employer—weren't doing too hot financially.
Being the Ivy League grad he was, Whitney studied the meticulous work of the few Savannah slaves who cleaned green seed cotton. Then he developed a mechanical device that could replicate the movement of their fingers.
His invention, the cotton gin, was a simple contraption featuring a series of rotating cylinders fitted with wires and brushes that rapidly captured the lint and discarded the seeds. In a single hour, Whitney's machine accomplished more than a team of laborers completed in a full day. Within just one decade the new device had revolutionized cotton production throughout the South.
And with the cotton revolution came an increased stubbornness on keeping slavery around.
Despite theoretically reducing the need for large numbers of slaves by easing the process of seed removal, Whitney's invention actually dramatically increased the demand for slave labor in the South.
The cultivation of cotton had become simpler and, more importantly, faster, so planters utilizing Whitney's invention were better able to meet the growing demand for the crop.
As a result, cotton growers enjoyed hefty profits and sought to expand their thriving enterprise by purchasing more land.
And more slaves.
Aided by the opening of the western frontier and by industrial growth in the North, the South became a virtual cotton-growing empire by the early nineteenth century.
And it all depended upon the survival of an institution that had been wiped out in the North. By 1804, every state north of Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware had passed some sort of legislation to outlaw slavery within its borders. Southerners were quite aware of the fact that the system they relied on had become increasingly "peculiar," and that it would need to be defended against those Americans—and Europeans—who challenged its existence.
And they were ready to put up a fight.
Perhaps one of the most persuasive and effective arguments advanced by Southerners in favor of slavery and its expansion was that slave labor generated nearly all of the raw goods—rice, sugar, wheat, indigo, tobacco, hemp, and, most significantly, cotton—exported by the United States and used in the mills and factories in the industrial North.
The wealth and reputation of the nation relied upon the productiveness of the agricultural South, plain and simple.
Plus, proslavery advocates asserted that slave labor was far superior to "free" labor for several key reasons.
More and more, the quest of those who sought fortune and independence rested upon western migration. Northern leaders, particularly members of the new Republican Party, concluded that with government support and the aid of new transportation and communication technologies, working citizens could find land and opportunity in the new territories out West. By reducing labor competition in the Northeast, wages would rise everywhere and the problems of unemployment and poverty would be remedied without new taxes, government charity, or worker uprisings.
Western expansion seemed the perfect way to revitalize society.
But the very large elephant in the room, slavery, reared its head.
The expansion of slavery into the West hindered this plan and, from the perspective of Republicans and other free labor advocates, crippled the country's potential for economic, political, and social advancement.
It seemed that the South, by insisting on the survival of its "peculiar" institution, mocked the most fundamental values of the United States of America: equal opportunity and the pursuit of happiness for all (white male) citizens. Furthermore, if the West were to remain open to slavery, then little would prevent white laboring men from slipping into an impoverished state—a fate, antislavery theorists argued, inevitably suffered by non-slaveholding whites in plantation societies.
White men, they cautioned, would someday find themselves in chains alongside Blacks.
Mind you, they're financial chains. Not literal chains that many slaves literally suffered.
Anyway, in the 1850s, these warnings both heightened antislavery sentiments and hardened Southerners' resolve in their fight to protect the institution that their livelihoods hinged on.
Both the North and South fought to deliver their respective, incompatible systems into the same territories, and by the late 1850s, that battle had ripped apart the political landscape, resulted in outright violence between Northerners and Southerners, and buoyed the political career of Abraham Lincoln. His presidential victory would lead to the secession of twelve southern states and, ultimately, Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln, the exalted Republican who led the war effort to preserve the American union, spent much of his political life as a member of another political party: the Whigs.
As a young statesman, Lincoln closely followed his party's line. He believed that federal aid for industry, protective tariffs, and a national bank benefited western expansion and stimulated a modernizing society. His party, however, was sharply divided over the issue of slavery and its spread.
Seems to be the theme of post-war America.
Whigs, some of them wealthy Southern planters, others Northern merchants and industrialists, agreed only that "liberty" came from the economic opportunities that a prosperous nation offered to average (white) citizens, not from the abolition or limitation of bondage. Lincoln's party, however, never developed a clear response to the political crises that grew as a result of western expansion, abolitionist agitation, and the threat of slave insurrection.
Lincoln himself displayed seemingly inconsistent views on these increasingly controversial topics. He refused to sympathize with defenders of slavery, convinced that the existence of the institution jeopardized freedom and justice for all Americans.
But he also condemned those who broke the law in support of abolition, since he felt that this also compromised the principles of the republic. Unlike his abolitionist counterparts, Lincoln declined to attack the slave labor system on moral grounds, and instead referred to it as "bad policy" that would likely disappear with time.
For this reason, he resolved to accept the Southern slave system, no matter how reprehensible, and urged his supporters to do the same. "I hold it a paramount duty of us in the free States," he wrote in 1845, "due to the Union of the States, and perhaps to liberty itself (paradox though it may seem), to let the slavery of the other states alone." As long as the federal government refused to sanction the institution or mandate its growth, it would die "a natural death."
And "conflict" is an understatement.